Setting out on the bird trail
Lopsided finances can crush a budget birding trip when one member of the party considers opting out. Harder still when the reason for his abandonment of our greater purpose is to watch a cricket match. Well, we know retrospectively that this was no ordinary game. And we know who won. But between the watching and the winning lies a tale.
Cellular signals don't trouble the Kulgi Nature Camp in Dandeli-Anshi Tiger Reserve. Not even BSNL -- well, not unless your phone happens to point northeast at a particular angle that takes three hours to determine accurately. It's really not worth the effort, because that half-arsed bar of connectivity vanishes as soon as you pick up the handset. But there is a colour television set in the common room here and a quorum of cricket enthusiasts among the guests -- where is that hard to find? And so Satish, who had almost stayed back in Bangalore to cheer for the nation, found himself couch-potatoed stolidly before the television set, a musty-smelling towel spread territorially over the back of his PVC deck chair. I doubt if he even made time for the demands of his bladder. The rest of us -- Arun, Andy, Sahastra and I -- set out for a little walk in the jungle at 5 pm. We took the Bird Trail, one of two short walks (the other is the Timber Trail) that originate at the camp.
|The drab dry forest was gorgeous|
|A Harvestman (Opiliones) watches us from a tree bark|
Arun suddenly alerted us to another sound -- the cracking of bamboo stumps. Only one creature (aside from the Giant Panda, perhaps?) was capable of making that noise. To our luck, the leafless jungle aided visibility. In the crackling dry undergrowth we discerned the hunched shapes of elephants. A prime wildlife sighting no doubt, but rather intimidating at a distance of 100 metres. We stood there on wobbly knees and considered the odds -- what if they attacked? Run in zig-zag formation, went an old jungle saying. Yes, yes... as if we had an option in this tangled forest. Another fear creased my brow: Were we upwind or downwind from the beasts? The only way to find out was to break wind and risk it. Finally, we exercised option three: Shut up and wait it out.
There were six -- three cows including a matriarch, and three calves of which one young chap had already sprouted tusks. If they chose to use force, this was going to be a formidable army. Another creature then joined the gazing party. Separated from its herd, a young deer (opinions, in the failing light, were divided as to whether it was a spotted deer or a barking deer) pranced anxiously through the thicket across our path and then, upon spotting us, froze and stared. My bowels were about to mutiny, for an alarm call from this lax little herbivore could spell our doom. At the end of a long and tense thirty seconds the deer bounded off into the forest. There was also an unexplained frenzy of bird activity around us -- a Malabar hornbill, a flock of Plum-headed Parakeets and a White-bellied drongo swarmed about us, but we were too tense to enjoy the spectacle.
|The elephants seemed in no hurry to move|
It occurred to us then that the second half of the match would have resumed. India would perhaps be chasing down that mammoth (wrong word to use under the circumstances) total set for it by Sri Lanka. Wonder if our pachyderm friends were aware that the mascot of the tournament was an (infinitely more cuddly) elephant called Stumpy? Would that knowledge be reason enough for them to let us get away from here alive and unharmed? Or did some form of jumbo-telepathy enlighten these elephants of the plight of their relatives in Hambantota, where human-elephant conflict had already tainted the future of a sylvan hamlet for which the Sri Lankan government had big plans? Would the animals let us off lightly if we swore never to watch cricket again?
The herd shuffled in slomo while we stood as still as we could, and as quietly as our nervous, cricket-besotted minds would let us. Twenty-five minutes later, when the light had almost faded, the elephants had moved on out of earshot. As we passed the spot where the herd had crossed, Arun pointed out a scoop in the ground where the matriarch had pawed it. There was no trace of dung anywhere along the path (though two days later we would chance upon fragrant evidence that the herd had fed copiously and moved towards a waterfall five kilometres downhill in the Nagzhari valley). We got out of there as quickly as we could, fighting the instinct to bolt down the path. It was the fastest that we had ever returned from a birding trip.
|Arun counts the years added to life at the spot where the matriarch had pawed the ground|